Sport Tuesday, May 31st , pictures by: Adam Knight, Army Karate

Part-paratrooper, part-Power Ranger, the Hereford karate star chasing gold at the World Champs

Sport Tuesday, May 31st

Part-paratrooper, part-Power Ranger, the Hereford karate star chasing gold at the World Champs

Towering over his training partner, Chris Rowan - who raises up to around 6’3 when he lifts from his fighting stance - moves with the hair-trigger reactions of a man half his size.

The drill they are doing - part-warm up, part-agility training – sees the karate star shadow box, bouncing a tennis ball at his sparring partner where normally he would throw his hands.

The industrial unit in the centre of Hereford is warming slowly with the fighters’ bodyheat, as it does twice-a-day, five days-a-week.

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The pairs’ dogs watch on from their beds, exhausted from an early-morning blowout around the racecourse. When your owner’s one of the top five karate fighters in the world, it’s not always a dog’s life for the French Bulldog.

“I want to win everything,” Rowan said. “Every competition, I want to win it.

“With the amount of events on my schedule there’s always the chance you’re going to have a bad day or an off day. But I’m feeling good.”

Since I’ve caught up with him, he’s done just that. He rolled through the Southern Open, picking up a pair of Golds, and several weeks ago topped the podium at the prestigious Polish Open.

Next up, however, is the competition that has been marked with a big red circle in Rowan’s calendar for months.

At last year’s WUKF World Championships Rowan scored a Gold in the team event, but narrowly missed out on a medal in the individuals, placing fourth.

Next month he’ll cross the water to Dublin, with one thing in mind – bringing back top honours.

“That’s the big one for me.

“I’m the Army champion at the minute so I want to defend that title. That’s a big one for me. I always want the man-points with the blokes. But this year the goal is an individual medal at the Worlds.”

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A proud paratrooper in every sense – the regimental flag hangs prominently in Sam Beardsley’s gym, his training HQ in the city – Rowan lives a dual life of sorts.

A Catholic schoolboy seemingly destined to follow his father into the forces, Rowan signed up with 2 Para.

“I went in at 18 and never looked back,” he said. Six years and three tours of Afghanistan later - tours which he describes with a classic military stoicism simply as “busy” - he finds himself temporarily seconded from 1 Para to allow him to train full-time and chase gold medals.

“Occasionally I get some stick of the other lads, but they’re supportive.  They’re happy to see me doing well.

“If I go to a competition in a Parachute Regiment t-shirt, it’s great for recruitment.

“At the minute, I’ve been off since February last year. I send reports back but they’re really happy for me to carry on what I’m doing, and I’m really happy to be doing it.”

It helps that Rowan is a major part in an Army karate team that has secured bragging rights in 19 of the last 20 inter-services comps.

“The last time we lost was in the 90’s, I think,” Rowan smiled. “And there’s no sign of that changing.”

If Army life figured heavily in a young Rowan’s dreams growing up, he found his first love among the pads and belts and mats of a karate gym, 21 years ago.

“I started when I was four,” he said. “I started because I wanted to be a Power Ranger. To be honest, I still haven’t given up on that dream, I’m just doing this in the meantime.”

Not to stretch that comparison, but Rowan too is a different person the second he takes off his suit and steps off the mat.

On it, he’s an imposing and intense presence that could kick a cigarette out of your mouth before you had a chance to flinch.

But off it, he’s relaxed and funny, and heavily involved with coaching the next generation of karate kids in Hereford.

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Sam Beardsley – the son of legendary Hereford karate coach Tom Beardsley, and Rowan’s training partner – jokes about the first time he took him on the pads; the bell rang at the end of the round and Rowan bowed.

He said: “I’m used to taking boxers – they just head back to their corner. I didn’t know what to do - I found myself bowing back.”

It’s a level of respect and self-discipline synonymous with karate, and one that goes above and beyond even that of military life.

“It becomes a lifestyle,” Rowan said. “It’s hard to explain that lifestyle, but it’s the little things, the respect. Someone might go to shake my hand and I end up bowing to them.

“And with the amount of training you do it does take over your life.”

It’s that lifestyle that is in part responsible for a fraternity that goes beyond the Beardsleys, beyond Rowan’s Army team, or his coach and mentor, Brian Hall, a man who has been in the sport, “since before I was born,” Rowan says.

“More than the sport, it’s a brotherhood.

“I know lads from all over the country from fights, and we all stay in touch, try and meet up to train together. It’s a good community. They’re going through the same stuff as you.

“When you’re on the mat it’s competitive, but as soon as you come off, there’s a lot of respect. There’s never any animosity.”

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Those fighters will however be among those standing in the way of Rowan and two Gold medals in Dublin.

He will compete in the individuals, which is an open draw – “that’s why important to be the best” – and a Tekken-style team competition unlike anything in sport.

The team event, in which Rowan won gold last year, sees two three-man teams facing off against each other, one fighter at a time, for six minutes, with their coach able to swap out fighters at any time.

“You could switch out 100 times if you wanted, it’s heavy on the tactics from the coach’s side – but as a fighter, I’ve just got to go out there and do what I want.

“It’s a lot of fun.

“The sport went through a phase about four or five years ago when we couldn’t touch the Eastern European fighters, especially Romanians. They were winning everything.

“But now we have caught up, and it really is anyone’s game.

“After we won the team event at the World Championships, the Romanians came to England for the UWK English Open and we had an international showcase event – 7 fighters from Romania, 7 from England – and we beat them.

“There was a reaction in the karate community. We definitely have caught up.”

The success of fighters like Rowan in bridging that gap is testament to both their coaches, and the long hours spend in the gym.

But the reality is that elite performance comes at cost, personally and financially.

Rowan is supported by his battalion, but in order to raise the funds necessary simply to travel to international competitions,  he has reached out with success to local businesses for sponsorship, as well as drawing a on a more modern form of fund raising.

Several months ago Rowan set up a GoFundMe webpage to make up the deficit, and is halfway to his target.

It’s an idea he has borrowed from other elite athletes, but one previously unheard of in karate. And while he is too humble to be drawn on the matter, from the outside it would seem like a damning indictment on sports funding in this country that while non-league football can support fully-professional wage bills,  athletes at the peak of their sport are forced to pay their own way whilst competing for their country.

As a sport, karate has two possible routes to increased fame and fortune, both controversial in their own way.

With the Olympics coming to Tokyo in 2020, karate’s birthplace and spiritual home, there is push for the sport to be included. And while this would bring funding and profile to the sport it would also mean streamlining a disparate sport that currently operates with different rules, under different – and competing – governing bodies.

As of yet there is no clear consensus, and it seems increasingly unlikely that the sport’s organisers will reach one in time.

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The second route is via the reflected glow MMA – mixed martial arts – and specifically the global beast that is the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

“There are fighters like Sage Northcutt and Leo Machida in the UFC that are from a karate background. Even Connor McGregor, although he’s from a tae kwon do background, he has done karate,” Rowan said.

“They’re bringing it back in to the limelight.

“People may otherwise have cast it off – along with all their ‘wax-on, wax-off’ Karate Kid perceptions -  but now these fighters are coming in and picking people apart, it’s bringing the sport back to how it should be.”

So does Rowan fancy a shot in the Octagon?

“If you look  at all the top fighters, they started out as an expert in one thing before moving in to MMA – Ronda Rousey in judo, Jose Aldo in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai - you don’t want to be a jack of all trades,  master of none.

“I’ve never done any ground work. Me and Sam have a play around in here, but there’s a massive spectrum to train in MMA. There are so many ways to lose a fight.

“You never know, maybe in the future, but I love my sport and I enjoy what I do. I wouldn’t want to give that up to do something else.

“I’d do it on the side, but to be good at anything, you need to be fully committed to it.” 

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